Our San Diego Border Tour
On November 25, 2018, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) closed the San Ysidro Port of Entry, at the south end of San Diego, and all businesses in the area. The large Las Americas Outlets Shopping Mall is adjacent to the port of entry, and the American border wall, constructed of recycled military landing pad panels and easily scaled, lines its southern parking lot. San Ysidro is the busiest Port of Entry along the Southern US border. A nearby refugee shelter in Tijuana was intended to house up to 2,000 people, but was overflowing with 6,000 people. As people crowded the streets, the Mexican police forced the crowds into the canal between the countries border walls, which resembles the paved LA River. As they were pushed into the canal, the American CBP fired teargas grenades into the crowd – who were technically in Mexico – and their helicopters hovered overhead, pushing the gas down into the crowd.
The area was closed for 5 hours, during which time the US Businesses estimated over five million dollars in losses, and Tijuana estimated 6 million lost. But many of us were more horrified by the human rights abuses than the commercial losses.
In response, Pedro Rios, who led a 2017 workshop at Orange Grove Monthly Meeting on “Defending the Rights of Immigrants,” and who runs the San Diego American Friend’s Service Committee office, had a vision. What if we could get 150 interfaith leaders to stage a non-violent protest in nearby Friendship Park, at the border beach? In December, an annual La Posada Sin Fronteras – Posada Without Borders – event was to soon celebrate it’s 25th anniversary in the park. Friendship Park has traditionally been a place where families in both countries could come to see and talk to each other.
On August 18, 1971, Pat Nixon came to the park, which then only had a chest high rancher’s barbwire fence, and shook the hand of a Mexican man, stating, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.” As the fortifications and division escalated over the subsequent years, Friendship Park remained a symbol of hope and unity. A Methodist minister named John Fanestil holds an interfaith border church service there every Sunday afternoon; while once he was able to share communion wafers and “wine” with the Mexican participants, now a heavy grate separates the two areas, making that impossible, even if the supervising Border Patrol agents were to allow it. The number of people allowed into the area between the two walls, which line a CBP road running into the hills from the beach, has declined from two dozen to ten, for a maximum of 30 minutes. Often they’re not allowed to take pictures.
In December, not 150, but hundreds of faith leaders descended on the beach at the edge of the park. Many had attended a training the day before. The faith leaders willing to be arrested sat on the sand between the two walls while hundreds of others stood by. Border Patrol agents dressed in riot gear formed a line between them and Mexico, and eventually 32 faith leaders were arrested. Among them was Shan Cretin, former General Secretary of the AFSC, and Lucy Duncan, who serves as a Meeting Representative liaison for AFSC. Jim Summers from La Jolla Monthly Meeting reported that most of the officers were surprisingly “well-behaved” although some seemed ready to beat someone as soon as they’d be able to. Shan has reported that some of the people whose arrests went to court received $150 fines and some community service. Her case hasn’t been heard yet.
When Southern CA Quarterly Meeting received approval to hold this year’s Spring Gathering at San Diego Meeting, adjacent to Pedro’s AFSC office, I inquired about a possible border tour for our attendees. Pedro agreed, taking time from his Sunday “off” to lead and educate us.
Still reeling from the news reports of a shooting in a Poway Synagogue at the north end of San Diego the day before, we convened near the Outlet Mall, where Pedro detailed the November attack, and explained the Port of Entry’s history, and enormous volume of traffic it sustains.
From there, we drove to Friendship Park, past a notch in the hills known as Smuggler’s Gulch, which was largely filled years ago, and was once one of the main illegal avenues into the US for migrants and drug smugglers. The dirt road from the parking lot to the park itself winds through a mile and a half of marshes, and three tires lay in the middle of the road. Up the hill, the border wall is an ever-present sign of separation. Pedro explained that the tires are dragged over the road by Border Patrol to help make footprints easily visible. Pedro discussed the different border wall prototypes, now dismantled, that had been built east of San Ysidro, with the designers’ hopes of winning Trump’s Border Wall contract. Among the criteria for the wall design were that they be impossible to scale, and that they have visual transparency, so the Border Patrol could see people on the other side.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon hike with a group of 25 people, it was hard to imagine the marshes at night, with desperate families trying to run across them, being watched by Border Patrol officers with night vision equipment. In the 1980’s, pre-ROTC teens performed their own racist “manuvers” at night there, while the Border Patrol turned their heads and pretended not to know. They called themselves, “bean hunters,” a derogatory reference to Mexicans and Mexican food. Vietnam-war-style traps with holes and wooden stakes were dug, and the teens dressed in camouflage para-military outfits chased and shot BB guns at the immigrants who were trying to cross the marsh. Pedro later shared YouTube links, including a news reporter who joined the teens on their expeditions. I’m still haunted by the image of a family huddled in a culvert, cornered by the paramilitary teens and their guns – not knowing they weren’t loaded with bullets but BB’s, unable to speak English to them. These kids had come from the same area as the previous day’s Synagogue shooter, an area not far from us, where racist Aryan ideology still isn’t that uncommon.
When we reached the Friendship Circle and Bi-National Garden, we were greeted by a friendly Border Patrol officer who seemed to know Pedro. He let us through a gate, ten people at a time. The American side of the wall was nearly deserted, but on the Tijuana side, CAIR San Diego and the Latina Muslim Foundation had organized a bi-national prayer event. Many people were chanting and bowing on prayer rugs. Thick metal grates covered the wall; you could barely stick a finger through them. Nearby was a large rusty gate door in the wall. Apparently this has only been opened eight times since the wall was built, on special occasions. The last time was for a special 2017 wedding with an American man and Mexican bride. It was later discovered he had smuggled drugs, so the event became seen as a disgrace by officials, who vowed that the door will never open again.
Pastor John Fanestil arrived to hold border church services, with a camera crew in tow. But he spent more of his time talking with our group and sharing pictures of the border church over the years. As he and Anthony Manousos talked, they discovered they’d both known Anthony’s former late wife years before. We all posed for a group photo, and the tourist who took the photo for us turned out to have worked for AFSC in Portland, Maine!
We all began the hike back to the parking lot; some of our group were recovering from mobility impediments but really wanted to join the trip, so it took quite a while for us to wait for their return so we could say our final goodbyes, regroup, and begin our drives back north. So many friends had come long distances to join us, and we barely had time to talk with each other. As we focused our dependent attention on the GPS and merged into the moderately heavy traffic on the freeway, it all seemed like a surreal dream receding behind us. We’d wandered like happy tourists through a passageway haunted with desperate attempts to find a new life in our country. It was hard to reconcile the daytime images of fields filled with spring flowers being the site of Border Patrol apprehensions in the dark of night. What – if anything, could we do about it all?